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A Revisionist Perspective on Framing Effects

Summary and Keywords

There is a dichotomy in framing research that can be traced back to its multidisciplinary origins in psychology and sociology. Definitions of framing rooted in psychology are concerned with the differential presentation of the otherwise identical information and are often referred to as equivalence framing. Definitions rooted in more sociological traditions investigate how a message can be constructed with different sets of information to highlight contrasting perspectives on the same issue. The latter is typically referred to as emphasis framing. Although often subsumed under the same label, equivalence framing and emphasis framing are systematically different, both conceptually and operationally. Therefore, the two traditions need to be carefully distinguished in terms of their origins, conceptualization and operationalization of frames, underlying mechanisms, cognitive outcomes, and their relationships with other media effects theories.

Categorizing existing studies revealed two major pitfalls in framing effects literatures. First, many political communication studies to date have adopted the emphasis framing approach. However, as substantial manipulation of information introduces confounding variables making it difficult for researchers to attribute the effect on the audience to the change of frames, this approach has relatively low internal validity in experiments and can hardly be distinguished from other cognitive media effects models, such as agenda setting and priming. Thus, the bias toward emphasis framing needs to be addressed by conducting research with equivalence frames so that a more concrete causal relationship between message framing and its effects can be established. In addition, little attention has been given to visuals in framing effects research so far. Considering that people consume information in a multimedia environment online, visual frames and verbal-visual interactions need to be further investigated.

Keywords: framing effects, revision, equivalence framing, emphasis framing, verbal frame, visual frame, schema, experiment, political communication


Twenty years after Entman (1993) called framing research a fragmented paradigm, it remains that way. Framing has its origins in both psychology (Tversky & Kahneman, 1981) and sociology (Goffman, 1974) and has since attracted research from across disciplines, such as economics, political science, and communication, just to name a few.

According to Entman (1993), communication studies can distinguish itself and establish its identity in academia by playing a major role in “bringing together insights and theories that would otherwise remain scattered in other disciplines” (p. 51). Toward that end, the fact that framing is characterized by a high degree of vagueness and inconsistency in how it is conceptualized and operationalized across disciplines could have provided communication researchers with the opportunity to develop a consistent research agenda that ties together the strands of literature emerging from fields, such as sociology, political science, or psychology.

For a variety of reasons, the communication discipline has so far been unable to capitalize on this opportunity (Cacciatore, Scheufele, & Iyengar, 2016). Despite the fact that scholars from various disciplines all use the label “framing,” there continues to be no consensus on how “framing” should be defined and operationalized in research, how frames function, and what the underlying mechanisms of framing effects are. Moreover, there is a lingering question regarding whether framing constitutes a media effects theory that can be distinguished from agenda setting, priming, or even persuasion to best describe the kind of phenomenon observed (Scheufele, 2000; Scheufele & Tewksbury, 2007).

Even with those essential issues unsolved, the fervor of framing research in political communication continues. Meanwhile, there have been theoretical efforts to develop comprehensive models that illustrate the process of framing (D’Angelo, 2002; de Vreese, 2005; Pan & Kosicki, 1993; Price & Tewksbury, 1997; Scheufele, 1999, 2000) and typologies that categorize different framing approaches (Chong & Druckman, 2007a; de Vreese, 2005; Druckman, 2001b; Scheufele, 1999) along with attempts to identify different framing devices/units (Coleman, 2010; Entman, 1993; Gamson & Modigliani, 1989; Messaris & Abraham, 2001; Pan & Kosicki, 1993; Rodriguez & Dimitrova, 2011; Tankard, 2001) and to compare framing with other media effects theories, such as agenda setting and priming (Maher, 2001; McCombs, 2004; Price & Tewksbury, 1997; Scheufele, 2000; Scheufele & Tewksbury, 2007; Weaver, 2007).

As far as empirical work on framing goes, however, the field remains as disjointed as ever. By reviewing existing framing effects studies and drawing on previous theoretical insights, this paper therefore argues, first, that instead of integrating different approaches with the same label, scholars may need to further specify the concept of framing. Although the fervor of framing research has brought unconnected research endeavors together, there are systematic differences between them in which scholars are looking at either how a piece of information is presented, known as equivalence framing, or how a message is constructed, referred to as emphasis framing (Cacciatore et al., 2016; Druckman, 2001b). Thus, this paper distinguishes between those two major framing approaches in terms of their origins, conceptualization of frames, operationalization in research, underlying mechanisms, cognitive outcomes and their relationships with other media effects models.

Following that, by classifying existing literatures with a typology, this paper highlights two prejudices in framing effects studies that should be addressed by future research. First, most political communication studies have embraced the emphasis framing approach where different information is included with the switch in frame. However, at least in experiments, equivalence framing should be adopted to isolate frames from other confounding message elements. Second, visual framing has been insufficiently studied, not to mention the interplay between verbal and visual frames. However, considering that text-based news stories online are usually accompanied by images or videos, this paper analyzes how the traditions in verbal framing inform us about the study of visuals and suggests that scholars further investigate visual frames and verbal-visual interactions.

The Dichotomy in Framing Effects Studies

As a concept, “framing” lacks clarity and precision. There is no concrete conceptualization of what “framing” is in communication research, and scholars usually define it in abstract and vague terms. As a result, “frame” seems increasingly akin to a group of concepts, such as “schemata” (Goffman, 1974, p. 21), “selection” (Entman, 1993, p. 52; Gitlin, 1980, p. 7), “emphasis” (Gitlin, 1980, p. 7), “story line” (Gamson & Modigliani, 1987, p. 143), “formulation” (Tversky & Kahneman, 1986, p. S255), and “modes of presentation” (Iyengar, 1996, p. 61; Scheufele & Iyengar, 2014). The different phrases used to define “frame” make it hard to identify what a frame incorporates and therefore “frame” is operationalized in research with different message elements from as simple as a label to the whole story package. Despite all those conceptual and operational confusions, there are two distinct lines of research at the core of the broad framing paradigm, a dichotomy in framing studies derived from its different origins in psychology and sociology.

The Psychological vs. Sociological Origins of Framing

The psychological roots of framing can be traced back to Kahneman and Tversky’s works (1979, 1984) on people’s decision-making under risk. They proved that people failed to stick to the same decision when the essentially same problem was formulated in a different way. For example, in an experiment where participants were informed that 600 people were in danger due to the outbreak of a disease, most respondents would agree that saying “200 people will die” was identical to the statement that “400 people will be saved” (Tversky & Kahneman, 1981, p. 453). If people are rational in their decision-making after message exposure and always follow mathematical expectations, we would assume that this minor difference in the presentation of the equivalent information shouldn’t affect people’s judgment. However, Tversky and Kahneman (1981) successfully demonstrated in their experiments that people were “risk averse” in the gain/survival condition, but became “risk seeking” when the same problem was presented with reference to loss/mortality. Therefore, framing effects research informed by this psychological tradition focuses on the precision of manipulation and aims to show that people are responsive to the variant formulations/presentation of the essentially identical information.

The sociological tradition of framing originated from Goffman’s (1974) book Frame Analysis, which looks into how people interpret their daily experiences by applying frameworks in their minds that assign meanings to those occurrences. In mass communication, journalists frame events in the production of news stories for it to make sense among audience members. As a result, people who consume those news stories or “interpretive packages” will experience the realities constructed by reporters (Gamson, Croteau, Hoynes, & Sasson, 1992; Gamson & Modigliani, 1989, p. 2; Tuchman, 1978). Therefore, the sociological origin of framing deals with more macro-level observations as how different social forces shape mass media discourse and its consequences on the public. For example, through analyzing media content and comparing it to survey results, Gamson and Modigliani (1989) demonstrated a correlation between the change in the media depictions of nuclear power and the shift in public opinion over time. Therefore, framing effects research favoring this sociological approach emphasizes closely replicating real-world media discourse to see its influence on the audience’s issue interpretations. As a result, it sacrifices precision of manipulation in this process as messages around the same issue are usually constructed very differently outside the laboratory.

Conceptualization of Framing and Frames

The two distinct traditions of framing research have gradually become mixed together under the same label over time. This is largely due to the vagueness around the word “frame” not only in research, but also in lay language and in the political discourse among pundits and journalists. When people refer to a frame in reality, are they talking about a frame of a picture or a building frame (Gamson et al., 1992)?

Visualizing frames in research in terms of “picture frames” implies embedding the same content into different contexts. It is the same picture that is displayed, but surrounding it with a wooden or a golden frame will change how the audience perceives the picture (Cacciatore et al., 2016). In that sense, the frame serves as a cue in people’s processing of the essentially identical content, which echoes the psychological roots of framing. For example, the same gray colored area may look brighter if it is surrounded by blackness but appear darker if the areas around it are white (Kahneman, 2003).

This is very similar to formulating the same problem in terms of gain vs. loss, as they both demonstrate that people rely on a context to locate the information they encounter and that context serves as a reference that directs people’s interpretations. Since the content of the picture does not change with the switch in frame, this approach has been labeled as equivalence framing, which identifies different modes of presentation of the logically identical information from framing’s psychological tradition (Cacciatore et al., 2016; Druckman, 2001b).

In contrast, conceptualizing framing with respect to “building frames” focuses on how different elements around an issue got brought together according to a central structure in the process of message construction. The production of a logically coherent mass media message is like the construction of a building. “Principles of organization” (Goffman, 1974, p. 10) need to be followed as different sets of information are fit together into story packages that help audiences make sense of the issue at hand (Ferree, Gamson, Gerhards, & Rucht, 2002; Gitlin, 1980). For example, in the case of nuclear power, mass media may feature a pro-nuclear news story constructed around the issue of energy independence or an anti-nuclear package that concerns the safety of having more nuclear plants (Gamson & Modigliani, 1989). As different information is assembled in the process of message building to emphasize contrasting perspectives on the same issue, this approach has been referred to as emphasis framing, which points to its broad sociological orientation (Cacciatore et al., 2016; Druckman, 2001b). The two distinct ways to conceptualize framing with different visualizations of frames have practical implications on how frames are operationalized in research.

Operationalization of Frames in Research

Framing is studied with different layers of message features/units, including labels, statements, arguments, and narratives. Gamson and Modigliani (1989) came up with five framing devices: metaphors, exemplars, catchphrases, depictions, and visual images (p. 3). Tankard (2001) expanded the list even further by identifying as many as 11 news framing devices, such as headlines, subheads, leads, quotes, photographs, photo captions, and statistics (p. 101).

In order to ensure that the same information is being passed along in different conditions, equivalence framing only involves minor changes in wording to switch the mode of presentation, and all other aspects of the message need to be held constant. Therefore, it is operationalized with smaller message units such as labels and statements.

Label is the simplest framing unit. When somebody or something in the real world is referred to in a message, a label needs to be attached to the information being communicated for it to resonate with the audience. In the case of immigration, those foreign people who entered the U.S. territory without authorization may be called either “illegal immigrants” or “undocumented immigrants,” with the latter triggering more positive attitudes among the respondents than the former (Ommundsen, Van der Veer, Larsen, & Eilertsen, 2014). In many heatedly debated public policy issues, even a simple switch in the use of labels has impacts on the audience. In terms of whether partial-birth abortion should be banned, simply by replacing the word “fetus” with the term “baby” in the article increased the audience’s support for abandoning the procedure (Simon & Jerit, 2007). The label “baby” may make people associate partial-birth abortion with killing lives. Thus, people’s perceptions of the legitimacy of the practice are affected by different labeling of the same information.

Equivalence framing has also been operationalized with mathematically identical statements. For example, saying that “90% or 95% of the workforce will be employed” is equivalent in information to the assertion that “10% or 5% of the workforce will be unemployed.” However, in this situation, we can expect that people will be more responsive to the latter statement because it makes the program seem more effective by presenting it as cutting the unemployment rate by half, a relatively large ratio (Quattrone & Tversky, 1988, p. 727). The difference in the audience’s reactions demonstrates that people’s opinions are fickle and may be easily manipulated by the alternative formulation of the same choice.

In contrast to equivalence framing that underlines the precision of the message stimulus, emphasis framing usually takes the form of higher levels of message units, such as arguments and narratives and thus involves substantial differences between experimental conditions. As the focus of emphasis framing is the replication of real-world mass media messages that are shaped through the interaction of different social actors, the message stimuli revolve around the use of different sets of information to emphasize competing perspectives on the same issue.

Arguments are those claims with reasons that support one’s position in a contending issue. At the conceptual level, very few scholars would agree that a frame is an argument, as the latter constitutes overt persuasion but the effect of framing seems subtle. However, at the operational level, they are not effectively distinguished from each other in emphasis framing research. In the following studies, the controversial welfare reform has been selected as the topic and competing arguments are featured in the two framing conditions: Reforming welfare is “ultimately the humane thing to do” vs. the welfare reform is “cruel and harsh” (Brewer, 2001, p. 54). Harsher restrictions on welfare will “enforce higher standards of personal responsibility” vs. stricter welfare restrictions will “harm poor children” (Nelson & Oxley, 1999, p. 1063). “Toughening work requirements … will help many Americans realize a better life of independence and hope” vs. “Demanding harsher work requirements will make it hard for single parents to … take care of or find care for children” (Shen & Edwards, 2005, pp. 806–807). Thus, emphasis frames as arguments highlighted contrasting opinions toward the same disputed issue with different information gathered to support conflicting viewpoints.

Similarly, in a series of studies conducted by Druckman and colleagues, frames concerning a public policy issue were classified as either “pro” or “con” in terms of their directions of argument relative to the position advocated in the policy proposal; that is, a pro-frame was rated by the respondents in the pretest as supporting the policy while a con-frame was perceived as opposing it (Chong & Druckman, 2007b, 2010, 2013; Druckman & Bolsen, 2011; Druckman & Leeper, 2012; Druckman, Peterson, & Slothuus, 2013). For example, regarding the issue of opening up new areas for offshore drilling, a pro-frame may emphasize how offshore drilling benefits the economy through boosting oil supply and increasing employment, whereas a con-frame may center on the dangers of seaboard drilling, emphasizing the safety of workers and the protection of maritime environment (Druckman et al., 2013).

This line of research also categorized frames with respect to their corresponding argument strength, that is, the perceived effectiveness of the frame, “strong” vs. “weak,” in helping respondents form opinions toward the issue (Chong & Druckman, 2007a, 2007b, 2010; Druckman et al., 2013). In the same case of offshore drilling, comparative to a strong pro-frame that talked about the overall economic gains, a weak pro-frame only highlighted how expanding offshore drilling could result in advancements in highly specialized technologies (Druckman et al., 2013).

The terms “pro,” “con,” “strong,” and “weak” that got consistently used in the works of Druckman and colleagues reflect how emphasis frames are operationalized in political communication research as arguments that focus people’s attention to a particular set of considerations (beliefs/evidence) that are either supportive of or in opposition to a policy position.

Emphasis framing also looks into how a story is told. News narratives about public affairs that are frequently under examination in framing studies are episodic vs. thematic coverage (Iyengar, 1991) and strategy vs. issue stories (Cappella & Jamieson, 1996). The reporting paradigm for certain news topics such as protests has also been analyzed by scholars (Chan & Lee, 1984; Gitlin, 1980). All those studies shed some light on the journalistic routines of news story construction. Stimuli used are not confined to verbal texts, but often extend to visuals, like images and videos.

Iyengar (1991) introduced the idea of episodic vs. thematic framing by pointing out that journalists usually construct news stories about public issues either by depicting a single event, or by talking about the problem in general terms. In the case of poverty, the news video in the episodic framing condition may feature the misery of a laid-off worker while the thematic story condition highlights the overall budget deficit in the United States. Such difference in framing has influence on audience perceptions of the causes and solutions to poverty: that is, people are more likely to hold individuals accountable for the problem after watching the episodic story but attribute the responsibility to the society as a whole in the thematic condition (Iyengar, 1996).

Research with strategy vs. issue frames has examined how news narratives affect civic engagement and public trust toward political candidates by directing people to interpret public policy making as either a political game to win votes or an effort toward the well-being of citizens (Cappella & Jamieson, 1996, 1997). For example, in the experiment conducted by Valentino, Beckmann, and Buhr (2001), the governor of Michigan who advocated welfare cuts to encourage people to work was depicted either seeing this proposal as “a good way to get votes for himself” or considering welfare as “an important issue for voters of Michigan” (p. 367). As the strategy coverage usually includes elements such as polling results and phrases emphasizing political competition in news narratives that enhance the strategy-based thinking in the audience, it has been proved to be more likely to trigger cynicism toward politicians and the function of the political system than the issue-based news story.

Reporting paradigms also reflect how journalists effectively transform a real-world event into a news story. In the coverage of social movement, McLeod and Hertog (1998) categorized features of the “protest paradigm” (Chan & Lee, 1984) by identifying that protest news stories usually highlighted conflict in their narratives, cited official sources, and used bystanders’ comments as the evidence of public opinion toward the protest. As most protest stories serve to delegitimize protesters, McLeod and Detenber (1999) conducted experiments with news videos in which variant degrees of status quo support were featured through systematic differences in the information conveyed in those videos: for example, whether police were depicted as responsible for starting the clash and whether protesters got interviewed. The research found that audience perceptions of the legitimacy of the protest were affected by such systematic differences between news packages.

As equivalence frames are operationalized with logically identical labels and statements while emphasis frames usually take the form of arguments and news narratives, it is apparent that different subjects are under investigation, which raises the importance of differentiating between the two approaches of their underlying mechanisms and cognitive outcomes in framing effects research.

Underlying Mechanisms and Cognitive Outcomes

Cognitive schemas are at the center of our understanding of how frames function (Scheufele, 2000; Scheufele & Tewksbury, 2007). Schemas are networks of linked concepts in people’s minds. They comprise one’s existing knowledge and prior experience that can be applied to interpret what is going on. People process new information by associating it with their preexisting schemas (Fiske & Taylor, 1991; Rumelhart, 1980).

According to Price and Tewksbury (1997), there are well-established paths that connect two or more concepts together in people’s minds and the function of frame is that it can activate the corresponding path, also known as applicability effects. Thus, various formulations of the same information will evoke different schemas people apply to the processing of the same issue at hand. In that sense, the cognitive outcome of equivalence framing is to make the audience perceive a particular set of preexisting considerations (schema) as more relevant to the interpretation of the issue.

As the content of the message remains identical across conditions, equivalence framing can be distinguished from other media effects models, such as agenda setting and priming, in that it does not function through the salience of information. Thus, any outcome in the audience can be ascribed to the shift of presentation alone, which insures the internal validity of the research. However, equivalence framing may be criticized for its lack of ecological validity because it does not reflect how messages are produced in real-world mediated environments, that is, outside of controlled lab experimental settings. Differently framed news stories, in other words, will seldom vary just in the mode of presentation, but instead will include different persuasive or informational elements, which points to the importance of emphasis framing research.

The extensive manipulation of information in emphasis framing makes it impossible for the applicability mechanism alone to account for all the differences in the effects on the audience. Because a particular set of information has been more easily accessed in people’s minds and recalled from their memories due to message exposure, accessibility effects also play an essential role in this process (Iyengar, 1990; Zaller & Feldman, 1992).

In that sense, emphasis framing is difficult to distinguish from (second-level) agenda setting and priming. Agenda-setting theory states that the public will perceive an issue to be more important simply because that issue has received a large volume of media coverage recently (McCombs, 2004; McCombs & Shaw, 1972). Priming can be seen as the outcome of agenda setting in that it states that people’s judgments on issues and their decision-making are affected by the recent information they got from the media because it has become more salient in their minds and therefore more accessible (Iyengar & Kinder, 1987). Emphasis framing overlaps with these two accessibility-based theories as they all involve substantial message manipulations that will change the perceived salience of the information in the audience.

Along those lines, emphasis framing is also difficult to distinguish from persuasion, especially in the case of frames being operationalized as arguments that reflect competing rhetoric. Some political communication scholars deliberately conceptualized persuasion effects in a much narrower way in order to lend more support for the legitimacy of argument-based emphasis framing studies. They indicate that constructing an attitude toward an issue requires people to weigh relevant subsets of beliefs/considerations: while persuasion changes the content of the belief, framing alters the weight people assigned to different beliefs (Chong & Druckman, 2007b; Druckman, 2001a; Nelson & Oxley, 1999; Nelson, Oxley, & Clawson, 1997). For example, in the debate over the government’s power of surveillance, two major dimensions of considerations are involved, namely, “national security” vs. “civil liberty.” While people’s opinions on this issue may be affected by whether they believe collecting data from private communication on a large scale is effective in protecting the nation from terrorism attacks (persuasion effects), their attitudes may also be subject to the influence of how important they perceive that belief to be relative to other concerns such as civil liberty infringements (framing effects).

While this narrowly construed scope of persuasion effects (i.e., that providing differential subsets of considerations in a message does not constitute persuasion) is largely debatable, such an explanation of the cognitive mechanism behind emphasis framing provides further evidence that the accessibility of different beliefs is central to its function; that is, emphasis frames shift people’s overall attitude toward the target issue through highlighting alternative considerations in the message and therefore raising the level of perceived importance of the corresponding beliefs in people’s minds. As such accessibility-based effects confound the design, the high level of ecological validity emphasis framing achieves in research comes at the expense of its internal validity.

Biases in the Existing Framing Effects Research

As discussed, the two lines of research, although being grouped together under the same paradigm, are different in important ways (see Table 1 for a review). In other words, equivalence and emphasis frames describe largely distinctively different areas of research, and simply subsuming both approaches under the broad conceptual umbrella term “framing” fails to capture fundamental conceptual and operational distinctions.

Table 1. Archetypes of Framing Effects

Message units


Underlying mechanisms

Cognitive outcomes

Relationships with other media effects theories

Equivalence Framing

Label; Statement

Subtle: Same information presented in different ways (high internal validity)

Applicability effects

Schema relevance

Independent from agenda setting, priming, and other informational appeals

Emphasis Framing

Argument; Narrative

Substantial: Different messages about the same issue (high ecological validity)

Accessibility effects

Information salience

Overlap with agenda setting, priming, and persuasion

Without explicitly labeling the theoretical foundation of any given framing study, framing research can therefore not be cumulative, which prevents scholars from using empirical findings to further enrich and develop the concept. In Table 2, we provide a typology of the existing framing effects studies based on their differences in the conceptualization and operationalization of frames.

As displayed in the typology, most research in political communication has adopted the emphasis approach, manipulating higher levels of textual-based message units such as arguments and narratives. What receives little attention is equivalence framing with smaller message elements like logically identical labels and statements. Visual frames have also been overlooked despite the fact that images and videos are usually combined with textual-based messages online. Those two prejudices will be addressed by specifying what the future focus of framing effects research may be.

Bias Toward Emphasis Frames Over Equivalence Frames

Political communication research to date has clustered around the use of emphasis frames, as indicated in Table 2. As Table 2 shows, the sharp increase in the number of articles on framing published in communication journals (Scheufele & Iyengar, 2014; Weaver, 2007) is mostly in the category of “emphasis framing” research.

Table 2. Typology of Framing Effects Research in Political Communication





Equivalence Framing

(Ommundsen et al., 2014); (Simon & Jerit, 2007)

(Quattrone & Tversky, 1988); (Tversky & Kahneman, 1981, 1986)

Emphasis Framing

(Brewer, 2001); (Brewer, 2002); (Brewer & Gross, 2005); (Chong & Druckman, 2007a, 2007b, 2010, 2013); (Druckman, 2001a); (Druckman & Bolsen, 2011); (Druckman & Leeper, 2012); (Druckman et al., 2013); (Igartua & Cheng, 2009); (Nelson, Clawson, & Oxley, 1997); (Nelson & Kinder, 1996); (Nelson et al., 1997); (Niederdeppe, Gollust, & Barry, 2014); (Nisbet, Hart, Myers, & Ellithorpe, 2013); (Richardson, 2005); (Shah, Domke, & Wackman, 1996); (Shen, 2004b); (Shen & Edwards, 2005); (Slothuus, 2008); (Slothuus & de Vreese, 2010)

(Cappella & Jamieson, 1996, 1997); (de Vreese, 2004); (Gross, 2008); (Iyengar, 1991, 1996); (Lee, McLeod, & Shah, 2008); (McLeod, 1995); (McLeod & Detenber, 1999); (Pingree, Hill, & McLeod, 2013); (Price, Tewksbury, & Powers, 1997); (Rhee, 1997); (Shah, Kwak, Schmierbach, & Zubric, 2004); (Shen, 2004a); (Valentino, Beckmann, & Buhr, 2001); (Valentino, Buhr, & Beckmann, 2001); (Valkenburg, Semetko, & de Vreese, 1999)

Table 2 also shows that studies on “emphasis framing” account for much of the growth of the field of framing. More importantly, the studies subsumed under this label vary reality in focus—both conceptually and operationally. We agree that content analyses of news frames over time or across sources can, for instance, provide valuable information on how reporters and other social actors construct real-world events. However, we argue that using emphasis frames as stimuli in experimental studies confounds persuasive and content-based effects with framing. Which aspect of the message accounts for the impact? Can the effect be attributed to changes in the headline or quotes? Is it how particular sentences were worded or if arguments focused on moral or economic outcomes of a policy that produced the effect? Confounding content, in other words, renders the manipulation largely useless. Since studies focusing on emphasis frames fail to isolate a specific independent variable and control other confounding message features, they have relatively low internal validity.

This problem also affects the controversy over whether framing should be considered as a subcategory of agenda setting (McCombs, 2004; Scheufele & Tewksbury, 2007). Agenda-setting theory focuses on issue salience and at its second level, the salience of certain attributes of the issue (McCombs, 2005). It follows the logic that mass media can inform people of what information to think about (Cohen, 1963). As discussed, emphasis framing—in this sense—overlaps with second-level agenda setting.

What distinguishes agenda-setting from framing theory, however, is that framing effects are schema-centered and agenda-setting effects are not. Frames resonate with preexisting schemas and—in this way—direct people’s interpretations; for example, “what is play for the golfer is work for the caddie” (Goffman, 1974, p. 8). Framing works by making a particular schema (set of concepts) seem more applicable when interpreting the issue. In contrast, second-level agenda-setting effects are not dependent on preexisting schemas. For example, people may think of “inflation” as an important aspect of the economy after mass media exposure even if they are unfamiliar with the concept or do not have other mental schemas related to the economy.

Equivalence framing guarantees that any effect observed can be traced to the application of different schemas evoked by frames. However, emphasis framing is at best agnostic on the role of schemas because it also incorporates informational or salience-based appeals (e.g., second-level agenda setting) that to a large extent confound the effect.

Therefore, considering the bias that most political framing experiments have concentrated on the emphasis approach (see Table 2), we propose that emphasis frames may be particularly useful for analyses of real-world news environments, but are less productive for research concerning message effects. Borah (2011) found that the most commonly used methodology in framing literatures from 1997 to 2007 was content analysis, followed by experiments. Indeed, as the emphasis framing approach concerns the construction of messages from its sociological tradition, it may cater to the needs of research that aims at systematically analyzing news content. However, in terms of media effects research, we argue for a return to the psychologically oriented equivalence framing approach, which ensures the precision of message manipulation and thus the quality of the causal relationship established.

Bias Toward Verbal Frames Over Visual Frames

It is almost a consensus among scholars that framing theory can be applied to both semantic and visual elements in a message (Entman, 1993; Gamson & Modigliani, 1989; Gitlin, 1980; Kahneman, 2003; Tankard, 2001; Tversky & Kahneman, 1986). However, most of the existing research only focuses on analyzing the influence of the text, leaving visuals inadequately studied. Some communication researchers have therefore suggested examining the function of images and conducting research with visual frames (Coleman, 2010; Messaris & Abraham, 2001; Rodriguez & Dimitrova, 2011).

However, just as in the case of verbal framing, there is not a concrete definition of what visual framing is or what it may include. Scheufele and Iyengar (2014) suggest that visuals are easier to control than texts and “it is possible to create alternative versions of a picture that differ along a specific dimension, but which remain identical on all other observable dimensions.” The key question here is what could that dimension be? In other words, how may the dichotomy largely derived from verbal framing literatures be applied to visuals in research?

Applying the Equivalence Framing Approach to Visuals

As equivalence framing emphasizes the shift in the presentation of the message without changing the content, visual framing at this level points to manipulating only the structural aspects of an image or video. Thus, the corresponding framing devices may include the tonal value, shot angles, shot distances, and focal points of visuals (Coleman, 2010; Grabe, 1996; Iyengar, Messing, Bailenson, & Hahn, 2010; Moriarty & Popovich, 1991; Rodriguez & Dimitrova, 2011).

Changing the total value of an image refers to making the original color of the picture appear either lighter or darker. For example, a study by Iyengar et al. (2010) found that changing the tonal shade of Obama’s facial skin displayed in the picture during the early stage of the 2008 campaign affected respondents’ support for him. Compared with the darker version, the lighter version of Obama’s face reduced unfavorable evaluations of him and increased respondents’ likelihood of voting for him. Thus, the minor difference in skin color can activate the link in people’s minds between Obama and his ethnicity, which may further influence the judgments made by people with racial bias.

The shot angle refers to the relative position of the camera to the subject. An eye-level shot creates a sense of equality between the audience and the person in display which may lead to positive evaluations (Waldman & Devitt, 1998). Elevating the camera to take shots from above may deemphasize the person in the image by placing him or her in an inferior position that is often linked with the idea of weakness and powerlessness. On the other hand, lowering the camera to form shots from below makes the person in the image appear higher and superior and thus more in power (Berger, 1981). Similarly, changing the camera angle while depicting the same event may alter people’s perceptions of what is going on. In the case of social movements where protesters were on one side of the street while counterdemonstrators clustered on the other side, street views taken with different camera positions have the potential to affect audience perceptions of the amount of people involved in both groups, which may serve as a cue for their judgment on the legitimacy of the protest (Gitlin, 1980).

In addition, the distance between the camera and the subject may also cue perceptions and attitudes as it can be transformed to the perceived social distance for those who see the picture. If the person is depicted as being far away in a long shot with the surroundings, it may trigger negative feelings among audiences because that person in the photo may be considered as socially distant from them. A close-up shot of one’s head and shoulders, otherwise, suggests the intimacy between the viewer and the person in display, which usually produces favorable feelings (Berger, 1981; Coleman, 2010; Hall, 1966).

The focal point of an image can direct people’s attention to a particular aspect of the image and as a result lead to different interpretations of the same subject. For example, by focusing on a person’s face, the audience will likely view the person in the image through the lens of intellectual characteristics. In contrast, by concentrating on one’s body, the person featured will likely be evaluated from physical perspectives.

Thus, by changing the tonal value, shot angles, shot distances, or focal points of visuals, researchers can easily manipulate a single dimension of how an image or a video is presented without interfering with the information being conveyed in the experiment. However, as with verbal framing, this rigorous equivalence approach seems narrow in its application to analyzing real-world news photos. For example, journalists may prefer to use a completely different picture instead of dealing with those minutiae of the same image. Therefore, the psychological approach to visual framing has relatively low ecological validity in research compared to its sociological counterpart.

Applying the Emphasis Framing Approach to Visuals

As emphasis framing includes different information to switch the perspective of the message, visual frames at this level are hard to operationalize with concrete framing devices. In fact, scholars who embrace this broad definition of frames usually identify the visual itself as a whole to be a framing device (Gamson & Modigliani, 1989; Tankard, 2001). Among the very limited number of studies being identified as related to visual framing, most of them have adopted the emphasis approach examining news stories about societal problems, natural disasters, and wars.

In public affairs reporting, researchers have found that African-Americans are often depicted in news photographs and TV news stories that are associated with poverty and crimes. Such visual frames may trigger racial prejudice by establishing and repeatedly activating the link between African-Americans and social problems (Entman, 1994; Gilens, 1996; Martindale, 1996; Messaris & Abraham, 2001). In natural disasters news, a photograph may highlight casualties, destruction, rescue efforts, or politicians (Borah, 2009). U.S. newspapers are more likely to select pictures that portray victims when deciding what image to put on the front page (Fahmy, Kelly, & Kim, 2007). In the coverage of wars, photographs with a clash frame frequently depict advanced armaments, government officials, military operations, and property damage. In contrast, visuals with a humanitarian frame that emphasize the human cost in the war usually portray peace protests, lives lost, refugees, and civilians (Parry, 2011; Schwalbe, 2006, 2013; Schwalbe, Silcock, & Keith, 2008).

The problem with emphasis visual framing is that instead of changing a single or a few dimensions of the same picture, researchers are actually comparing different pictures. As a result, this sociological approach to visual framing becomes all-encompassing and confusing. It is not clear what researchers are measuring and therefore the research has relatively low internal validity. Scholars have already recognized this shortcoming as the emphasis visual framing approach has mainly been used in content analyses evaluating different media images rather than experiments examining effects of visuals on the audience. Again, the reason may be that without more detailed framing devices, it can be difficult to establish a solid causal relationship.

Interplay between Verbal and Visual Frames

Studying either the verbal or visual frame alone does not capture the full picture of how people consume information in the real world in the early 21st century. Information in a multimedia environment usually combines both texts and visuals. For example, a textual news story online usually comes with a photograph or a short video. Therefore, it becomes necessary to examine how verbal and visual frames work in combination to affect the audience’s processing of information.

Paivio’s (1971) dual coding theory suggests that language and visuals are processed by different mental systems. This distinction is echoed by the empirical findings that visuals may have superior power over texts on the audience; for example, studies have shown that people can better remember pictures than words (Childers & Houston, 1984; Paivio & Csapo, 1973).

Thus, we advocate investigating the interplay between verbal and visual frames. For example, when the image and textual frames match with each other, will the effect of the verbal frame be augmented? In contrast, in the unmatched condition, will the effect of the semantic frame be undermined? Scholars have examined framing effects in contested contexts where people are exposed to competing verbal frames (Chong & Druckman, 2007a, 2007b). As visuals can work in an implicit way with the audience being unaware of and thus less resistant to its appeals, will the visual frame be more effective than the verbal frame when they are in conflict? Examining such interplay calls for more comprehensive experiment designs that can look into the effects of verbal frames, visual frames, and their interactions at the same time.


By systematically differentiating between the two major framing traditions and categorizing existing effects studies, we suggest that instead of integrating different research with the same label, it may be better for scholars to further specify the concept of framing, that is, what kind of frame is under investigation in each study and how it matches with the methodology adopted in that research. For example, considering the dominance of emphasis frames in political communication research, we argue that while an emphasis framing approach may be effective in content analysis of real-world news stories, it does not fit experimental settings because emphasis frame manipulations of information can introduce confounding variables making it inappropriate for researchers to attribute the effect on the audience to the difference in frames alone.

Thus, we propose abandoning emphasis frames at least in effects studies and a return to the rigorous equivalence framing approach to guarantee a more precise causal relationship between message manipulation and its consequence. In addition, considering the complex online environment, we have identified how the dichotomy in verbal framing can be applied to the study of visuals and argued for more comprehensive experiment designs that explore the interplay between verbal and visual frames.


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